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How many countries have you been to?

I was in the tiny nation of Nauru for about an hour, in the middle of the night.  This is my only photo.

I was in the tiny nation of Nauru for about an hour, in the middle of the night. This is my only photo.

If you have traveled heavily, you have probably tried to convey the extent of your travels by condensing it down to a single number. It might be the number of countries you’ve visited or the number of states or provinces in your country you have been to.

Answering the question “how many countries have you been to?” is not as straight forwards as it may appear. While many places are obvious, the definition can sometimes be slippery and broader than you might think.

The United Nations

A good place to start any list of countries is with the UN. The United Nations is body of 192 sovereign, independent nation states. This covers everything you probably first think of as a country. Canada, Bolivia, Germany, Botswana, Malaysia, etc. Most of the big spots on the map can be filled in with countries which are members of the United Nations. The only country which is generally recognized as an independent nation but is not in the UN would be Vatican City, which has observer status at the UN. That would put the list at 193.

I was in Kiribati for several hours. I was denied entry into the country because the ink on my visa stamp bled

This was all I saw of Kiribati. I was denied entry into the country because the ink on my visa stamp bled.

The UN doesn’t cover everything, however. If you watched the opening ceremony at the Olympics, you will have noticed that over 200 countries were represented. 200 is greater than 193, and the Vatican doesn’t have an Olympic team (but it would be kind of cool if it did). This leads us to…

International Olympic Committee
There are 205 members of the IOC. The difference between the UN and the IOC is that the IOC includes several non-independent countries which are usually considered a territory of a larger country. This includes such places as Hong Kong, Puerto Rico, Guam, the Cook Island and the British Virgin Islands. The IOC also includes Taiwan (known in the IOC as Chinese Taipei) which is not a member of the UN.

If you merge the list of the UN and the IOC, you still have some issues. Hong Kong is part of the IOC, but Macau isn’t. American territories have independent status in the IOC, but French territories such as French Polynesia do not. Antarctica isn’t represented on either list, but it is an entire continent you can visit. We need a bigger list.

There is also another problem. The United States has 50 states, but there are obvious differences between Hawaii and Kansas. Not only are Alaska and Hawaii geographically separate from the rest of the US, but they have different histories and cultures than the rest of the country. If you have been to Hawaii, have you been to the United States? In a certain sense yes. Hawaii is one of the 50 states. In another sense, no, going to Hawaii isn’t the same as going to Kansas. In countries like Indonesia, you have thousands of islands which cover many different ethnic groups and languages. Is going to Vladivostok the same as going to St. Petersburg? Not really.

I was in Macau for about 12 hours, but did manage to see most of the territory in that time

I was in Macau for about 12 hours, but did manage to see most of the territory in that time

Travel isn’t just setting foot in political jurisdictions. Cultural and geographic distinctions are important as well, even if they are lumped in the same political entity. To solve this issue, enter….

The Travelers Century Club

The Travelers Century Club has taken it upon themselves to create a definitive list of “countries” for the purpose of travel. They not only include all of the above places, but also split off Alaska and Hawaii, Siberia from the rest of Russia, all the Emirates in the United Arab Emirates, the major island groups of Indonesia, the nations of the UK (England, Scotland and Wales), Tasmania and the rest of Australia, etc. Their list has 319 “countries”, and I put countries in quotes because most of them do not meet most people’s definition of a country.

This is the list I use on my website. I think it is a reasonable list which is covers most of the “places” on Earth. I do have some disagreements, but ultimately any list is sort of arbitrary and my disagreements are small enough that I still feel comfortable using it. Every so often I get an email from someone telling me that Hawaii isn’t a country (duh) or reminding me that Tasmania is part of Australia. I know that, but that isn’t really capturing the spirit of the list.

Where do you go once you’ve been to every place on the TCC list? That was answered by Charles Veley and…

Musandam, Oman is on the MTP list, but not the TCC list.

Musandam, Oman is on the MTP list, but not the TCC list.

MostTraveledPeople.com

Charles Veley is the self proclaimed “Most traveled person on Earth”. Actually, I have no reason to quibble with that title. He put in a helluva lot of effort into completing the TCC list and then set out for more. His website, MostTraveledPeople.com goes every further than the TCC and lists every US state, Canadian province, and region of Russia, Australia, China, and Brazil. It also goes the added step of merging the ham radio DXCC list, which is where the list begins to lose me. They list 757 places, of which I’ve been to 122. A large number of the places they list I have no desire to ever visit. It focuses too much on uninhabited islands, exclaves and enclaves. For example, it lists Johnson Atoll, which is a territory of the United States in the Pacific. There is nothing special about this place. No one ever lived there. It has no history, culture, or anything interesting about it from a natural standpoint. It is just a place which is only remarkable because of its odd political status. If it were given to Hawaii, nothing about the atoll itself would change, but it would probably be removed from the list. There are a bunch of these rocks in the middle of nowhere which get listed. I really see no reason why every speck of island in the world doesn’t deserve listing if these places do. It might be interesting for ham radio operators to talk to someone from there, but as a travel destination, it isn’t worth anything.

To me, a place is a place because it has some significance. It could be political (see the UN list), it could be cultural, historic, or natural. That is why in my sidebar I also list:

Visiting Historic Nara isnt the same as same as just stepping foot in Japan

Visiting Historic Nara isn't the same as same as just stepping foot in Japan

UNESCO World Heritage Sites

There are 878 World Heritage Sites and there are more every year. Going to see the pyramids is different than just having set foot in Egypt. Seeing the Grand Canyon is different than having an overnight stay in LA. Not all countries are equal in that respect. Some countries with long histories have more sites than others. The US and Canada do not have much in the way of cultural sites compared to Italy or China. Ultimately I like this better than a country list because it represents specific things and places with a reason for each one. Also, unlike countries, you usually don’t just pass through a World Heritage site like you might pass through a country on a train or in an airport. If you visit one you probably went there to see it. The problem is most people have no clue how many they have been to and have no idea how many there are. They are also much more difficult to visit. Going to the Solomon Islands is one type of difficult. Going to the east end of Rennell Island World Heritage site is a totally different type of hard.

I should also make note of one other list which is sort of fun….

The Hillman Wonders of the World

Howard Hillman is a writer who has compiled a list of the top 100 and top 1,000 wonders of the world. I’ve decided to put this on my sidebar as well because I think it is a fun list. It is in the same spirit as the World Heritage list, but includes things like city skylines, cruises and drives. I think seeing the skyline of Hong Kong from Kowloon was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen, but it will never be on a UNESCO list. I have currently been to 27 of the top 100 and should increase that significantly in the next year.

So, once again I ask you the question: How many countries have you been to?

  • 42 Comments... What's your take?

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Comments

  1. nabeel says:

    I have a question just of curiosity. My question is to all those (including this site owner) who travel a lot of countries. What is your source of income?

  2. Steve says:

    Just hit 90 UN countries….never counted the places or territories based off the other lists. Goal is 100 UN countries by 40 which is a year and a half away. I appreciate the blog and all the info and commentary.

  3. Tom says:

    I saw the list of the 321 “countries” and saw that Canada is only one entity… except the PEI.

    As I come from Québec, I can tell you that it makes no sense (it is borderline insulting) that PEI is distinct when Québec is not.

    Québec is much more than a distinct society from Canada. It is just as different from Canada as France is different from England and maybe more.

    It is a nation and, in 2013, we should not struggle anymore to be recognized as it.

    On the other hand, PEI is just a tiny island not distinct from the rest of ROC (the 9 provinces and 3 territories of Canada that have at least English as an official language).

    The only thing they have “special” is that they grow potatoes… no big deal.

    Québec, though is unique in all the French speaking world. A language, a history, a population, a culture, music, movies, political culture, relation the environment, totally different from the ROC.

    Add Québec!

  4. Deane Alban says:

    Please be nice, everyone. Haven’t you ever heard of an “ice breaker” before? Gary is trying to get a conversation going here. There is no need to get one’s nose out of joint!
    I haven’t been to nearly as many countries as many people here have (9), and I’m a lot older than most. But I find it inspiring to hear where others have been. It shakes me out of my complacency and makes me want to get going to more places and soon!

  5. It’s funny. When we get asked this question, we don’t include countries we’ve just passed through either on the train or through an airport. We also only count the places we’ve been together. Now, granted we’ve been together ahemteen years, so there aren’t too many we did separately. :) I think it’s like any other number or metric. It’s a snapshot of what you’ve done/who you are. I’m x years old, married/single, kids/no kids, degree? It’s just a way to sum up what would be a vast answer with some reasonable label. Instead of arguing over what constitutes a country, we could equally argue over what constitutes “married”, or any other label. What if you’re married but unhappy? Married but sleeping with everyone you meet? Labels are just that. :) (And just for the record, happily married, thank you, and 54-ish country-like places).

  6. Robert says:

    Why even care about it? It’s too difficult to define a country and besides, each place is different. If someone has been to Florida, does it mean that he knows Hawaii? If someone has been to Moscow, does it mean that he knows a lot about Russia? Most countries are too big to count them as one place.

  7. Haha, who decides when you have “known” a country deeply enough? Is there a test? Months, miles and doing it overland is just checking off a list in disguise. You might see more of Spain than most Spaniards, but that isn’t important to everyone. There is an undertone of “My way is better” in some of these comments.

  8. Haha, funny to see those who are against “shallow” counting have their own egotistical ideals. People just like to quantify, it’s not a measure of your worth get over it.

  9. Aaah, I have done some of these counts. According to TCC I am just over 80 depending on my harsher view of a “visit”. MTP puts me over 100 but their list is absurd. And I am at 46 of Hillmans hundred and 260 of the Hillman 1000 – an impressive list with only a few quibbles. The heritage list is interesting and not a count I’ve done.

  10. Many travel blogs I visit, I have a hard time figuring out their route. I list the countries in order so people understand my route, although a person can perceive and judge the context as they wish.

    My comment was not referring to you, I have not visited with you in person, although most people that I have visited in person that travel fast cannot explain the deeper levels of the culture or the dynamics of the country.

    Everyone has different style of travel, but the counting of numbers of countries a person has been to doesn't mean a thing—it's shallow.

  11. That number counting is based on ego driven self-glorification of oneself.

    Quality outweighs Quantity within most subjects, and indeed, the traveling subject.

    Most people that are traveling fast based on numbers cannot explain the deeper levels of culture or even the dynamics of the country, at least from my experience talking with people that travel fast and numerous countries within a short time.

    This subject is stupid as the question, What is your favorite country or place?

    • Gary Arndt says:

      Don't dare to tell me what experiences I've had, or try to be the benchmark for everyone in the world for how people should travel. If you want to spend 5 months in Egypt compared to my 1, I'm happy for you, but the fact that I spent more time than 99% of most people who visit hardly makes me “fast”.

      Also, you god damn hypocrite, I'd like to point out that you list the countries you've been to at the top of your “ego driven” website.

  12. Sherry Ott says:

    34 if I don't include just passing through an airport (I didn't think that was fair to include!). Doing number 35 in a week!

  13. DrManette says:

    I'll just list out the places I've been (countries and states):

    Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Florida, Colorado, Illinois, Washington DC, England, Ireland, Scotland, France, Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Italy, Greece, and Quebec.

  14. Irv says:

    Why does it even matter “how many” countries, or places, or whatever a person visits? I can see the allure of counting, but it makes it all sound so frivolous. Isn't it the quality of the travel? Isn't it expanding one's view of the world, seeing how others live and learning about other cultures? Quantifying travel like this kind of defeats the purpose.

    • Gary Arndt says:

      Because when you are talking to a group of people about traveling and you give an answer like that, it is a conversation killer and really not very fun.

      Numbering the places you've been doesn't destroy the good experiences you've had.

  15. Josiah says:

    I've only seen 5 of the 100 top destinations. At least I've seen those 5! However, I've been to 16 different countries in total. I really like this website. It has a lot of content, and a lot of valuable information. Thanks for putting so much effort into your posts! They are much appreciated!

  16. MDNomad says:

    I use the Travelers Century Club because my Grandparents were members with a total of 175 countries, and my parents are 10 countries shy of joining. I started traveling at 3 months of age with my parents and to date I have 50 countries on my list. I havent added a country in a while. But now I'm back in school to be an airline pilot at the Delta Connection Academy. That will feed my addiction again. My blog follows me through flight school to the goal of more access to travel.

  17. Gennaro says:

    Interesting topic. Based on the UN list, I'm at approximately 60 countries.

  18. rachaul says:

    Another criteria to consider is not only what constitutes a country, but what constitutes a visit. Some people say you have to have at least left the airport, others take it as far as to say that if you've not left your all-inclusive tourist resort you haven't really been to the country. My personal opinion is that if your passport says you've been, then you have.

  19. LH says:

    Hmm, not counting the countries I've lived in (Canada and S. Korea), I've been to 11 so far, and 2 more to be added in an upcoming trip (Greece & Turkey). I just went through the top 100 list, and saw 18 plus 6 to be added from the said upcoming trip. I only started traveling about 3.5 years ago, so that's not bad..? Been to mostly Europe, and rather easy to cover a lot of ground by train. :-) I daydream about a trip like yours, but hoping to do so one day…. Don't know how yet.

  20. radbadnomad says:

    Gary, just voted for ya, you are only 2 votes out of first place now. Great post, didn't know some of those lists were out there.

  21. Richard says:

    Not enough…

  22. Trevor says:

    China, Laos, Thailand, Panama, Jordan, Canada, U.S. – Seven, I guess, unless Hong Kong counts (a separate customs district although it's officially a part of China). Do I get extra points for going to China five times and traveling to really remote provinces?

  23. Mavis Hoffman says:

    I live in Canada so been to nine of the ten provinces, then traveled to the United States, Mexico, Cuba, Dominican Republic, England, Germany, France, Italy, Hungary, Austria, Germany, Switzerland, Australia, New Zealand. There are highlights from each of them. And each holiday had its own purpose and adventure. I just hope that I can visit many more of them.

  24. Alex Berger says:

    Great post with some fantastic points. I think by my last count I was at 25 or 26. That includes places like San Marino, The Vatican etc. which inevitably leads to conversations about what constitutes a country – love the criteria outlined in your post and definitely going to check out MTP!

  25. aarestad says:

    According to MostTraveledPeople.com, I've been to 40 locations, though most of those are US states, so that's kind of lame. :) I have set foot in 8 countries besides the US; besides the obvious Mexico and Canada, I have been to El Salvador and Guatemala, Ireland and the UK (just Northern Ireland), India, and (by virtue of a layover en route to India) the Netherlands.

    On the wish list: as much of western Europe as I can, especially Norway, France, and Spain, the latter because I have a friend in Barcelona; Australia to visit friends in Brisbane; Russia to visit a friend in St. Petersburg; Japan… but in this economy, I don't think I'll be seeing any of these places any time soon.

  26. Arthur Smith says:

    Four by any definition. The Netherlands, where I've lived all me life, Luxembourg, where we used to go on vacation every year, Belgium, where we occasionally went during those vacations, and France where I've been with school.

    I've passed through Germany and a few other countries and have been in Italy when I was six months old but I don't count those.

  27. Sadie says:

    I've been to the Bahamas (the water's so blue!!), Canada, England, and France. I live in the US. My favorite so far is England. I'd love to spend more time there. The British Museum in London was amazing, and all of the history is just awesome! I took the ferry from the White Cliffs of Dover over to France and that was really neat, but the people in Paris really are kind of snobby to Americans. I took French in school and know enough to fumble my way along – I was really trying! – and they were so rude about it! I'm glad I went there and saw all of the big things in Paris, but I'm not sure I'll go back.

    I really want to go to New Zealand and Japan and Ireland.

  28. Andy says:

    The ever important 'list of places' you can claim to have been to is more than merely an airport stopover or sandwich at a train station.

    For me, it has to be a scheduled meal or at least a night out. I've recently scrubbed off many a destination from my travel map on the basis that I thought it was cheating!

    Keep up the travelling, great blog.

    Andy

    http://andygeog.blogspot.com

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  11. [...] For the sake of simplifying this illustration I’m not counting territories, which Gary Arndt explains in detail at how many countries have you been to? [...]

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About Gary Arndt

My name is Gary Arndt. In March 2007 I set out to travel around the world...
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